ECMI Minorities Blog. Securitising the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on democracy and minorities.


Author: Dr. Marika Djolai

Since the end of 2019, the world has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has fundamentally changed the way in which societies function. Its impact is felt by almost every individual. On an emotional level, people’s responses fluctuate from straightforward panic and fear, to disbelief and anguish born out of helplessness and uncertainty. Months into the pandemic, citizens have been disappointed globally about government responses and handling of the disease that, in countries like the USA or Brazil, have led to a loss of tens of thousands of human lives. In a situation where states fail to protect and support their citizens or exhibit a lack of commitment to do so, we need to ask a simple question: Has the pandemic become a human security issue? This analysis goes against a backdrop of the observation that COVID-19 has already emerged as a major national security threat, with an impact on international security. The crisis is also shifting how the transatlantic partners think about security and pushes a search for the right kind of response at the institutional level to this new challenge. All security responses are inextricably linked, but it is still questionable whether they can mitigate effects of the pandemic on a population, especially on the most vulnerable. 

The health and well-being of the citizens should remain paramount when tackling the pandemic, but the commitment of the states and institutions to protecting them remains contentious. It is evident that COVID-19 pandemic prompted bad governance around the world and acted as an accelerator in countries where pre-existing conditions of populism and authoritarianism are deeply entrenched, and which rushed to securitise the response disproportionately. This was done in two different ways. First, many governments decided to impose a state of emergency and bypass democratic and constitutional tools, which includes deploying the military and heavily arming the police or obtain new, sweeping powers that allow rulers to sidestep parliament like in Hungary. Such moves are unsettling for many citizens, even though the protection of people and communities has been formally placed at the forefront of the state responses. These securitised responses tend to lack means of coordination with civil security actors and they are not communicated clearly to the citizens. Second, less publicly visible but equally as problematic, is the new use of surveillance tools, disguised as necessary emergency actions to protect the citizens. Securitisation reflects the political tension between the ruling elites with a tendency for state capture and the role that the state should play in securing its citizens. At the same time, securitising the COVID-19 response amplified the challenges faced by many excluded communities, while raising societal anxiety and eroding trust in the system.

As an example, the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by the Western Balkan states has been more than questionable. The governments of all six countries introduced a state of emergency that brought the military and special police forces out in the streets across the region. While the intervention was portrayed as an intention to support civilian authority and protect citizens, this was done in haste without respect for due decision-making procedures or in a transparent manner. While the response to the rise in corona cases was timely and quick, when the countries in the Balkans had less than 100 cases each, the prolonged draconian security measures remain problematic. Employing military in a disaster response was not a precedent (e.g. after recent floods in Serbia some areas, where people needed securing), it remains unclear how their engagement is justified in tackling an invisible enemy the size of the coronavirus. Such a response by the Serbian authorities and the measures they imposed were not only a derogation of human and minority rights guaranteed by the constitution, but are perceived more of a threat than assistance to the citizens.

Montenegro experienced an institutional response similar to Serbia, where the government was accused of taking decisions without consulting the parliament and of abusing the coronavirus crisis to abandon democratic principles. Albania arrived at the COVID-19 crisis from a vulnerable position of managing an earthquake aftermath that struck the country on November 26 2019. The state of natural disaster was already in place as an emergency measure, voted by the Albanian parliament and aimed at alleviating its consequences. With the corona spread, the state of emergency was then extended to April 25, followed by a second extension until June 23, which was deemed unconstitutional for some and seen as political opportunism. The main reason for concern came when Albania’s government deployed the army to enforce a 40-hour weekend curfew in March to fight the coronavirus, after people widely flouted previous measures aimed at containing infections.

Measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in Kosovo have been subject to political contest and legal challenges. In March, then Prime Minister Albin Kurti did not agree with the declaration of the state of emergency issued by the President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi, because the total number of infected individuals was only 19 at the time. He alleged that the motive behind the President’s move, which would include putting soldiers in the street, was not a concern for Kosovo citizens but an intention to block the work of his government. Equally problematic was that the President failed to consult Mr. Kurti before issuing the decree or to subsequently submit it to the parliament. The rift led to a parliamentary crisis and the fall of Mr. Kurti’s government later in March, prompting concern among the citizens not just about COVID-19 but the state of affairs barely six months since the last general elections and a lack of stability in their country. Resorting to emergency powers in any form, including declarations of a state of emergency is one of the most serious concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Venice Commission felt compelled to examine the limits of emergency powers since the pandemics started, emphasizing that rule of law must prevail even in the worst emergencies. In April, they issued a Compilation of Venice Commission opinions and reports on states of emergency, with a list of benchmarks aimed at regulating states’ actions during the pandemic.

Furthermore, the measures adopted by some Western Balkan countries to contain the pandemic have raised concerns among researchers who deal with privacy and digital rights. Rights groups in Montenegro are warning of a threat to data privacy rights, free speech, and media freedoms being disguised as the government’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Imposed under a state of emergency, the provisions could easily translate into mass surveillance tools. The main problem with the use of the surveillance tools is that once put in place they cannot be reversed easily, which threatens a long-term derogation of human rights. This problem is exalted in unstable democracies or non-democratic countries, and not just in the Western Balkans, where the responses to COVID-19 are driven by desire for political gain, leading to a path of further instability.

The length of the crisis remains uncertain and it is now clear that it has a geographic dimension and accelerates deglobalization, with some countries affected more than the others. The politics of securitisation increases the threat of COVID-19 to vulnerable and marginalized people. In a recent webinar on security in times of pandemic organised by EURAC research, we concluded that minorities are being both disproportionately affected by the crisis and securitised. From the information across the world, we are seeing that some social groups, including minorities such BAME and Roma, are affected more than others, both by targeted abuse such as hate speech and when it comes to health impact disparities of the pandemics. A recent comprehensive study, carried out by academics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), between early February and the end of April found that compared to white people, people of Asian, Black and minority origin in the UK were found to be at a higher risk of death. Disparities in COVID-19 outcomes among minority groups are result of several factors including marginalisation, discrimination, and particularly access to health services in combination with economic inequalities.

The UN has recognised the disproportionate impact of the pandemics on racial and ethnic minorities not only when it comes to a number of deaths but also the infection rate in comparison to general population. Some of the contributing factors are work positions that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to hold (e.g. health and cleaning sector), higher usage of public transport, and unsafe housing. Minority Rights Group International is documenting the challenges faced by minorities and indigenous people related to the COVID-19 health crisis, including confinement, social isolation, emotional/mental issues, verbal and physical abuse, loss of incom e and financial difficulties, among others. Experts and policy makers in the international forums all agree that the pandemics have exposed and accentuated multi-dimensional inequalities, which tends to affect minorities more. All the evidence makes a solid base to claim that COVD-19 is a human security issue.

The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities made a statement welcoming the efforts made by the authorities in several Council of Europe member states during the COVID-19 pandemic to reach out to persons belonging to national minorities and to respond to their specific needs. However, these steps are still per individual country and not coordinated in a systematic way. Protecting people, and particularly the more vulnerable, is at the centre of human security, while the most damaging to this process is the politics of securitisation and inadequate institutional responses. They erode trust between the citizens and the state, which is essential for successful talking of the pandemics and should have a central place of the security leaders. Securitising COVID-19 response is a threat to all citizens, and the fight against the pandemic should be as much a public health response as promoting democracy and fighting for human and minority rights.

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If you wish to write a commentary on this blog post, please contact the ECMI Minorities Blog editor Dr. Marika Djolai.

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